Bringing Christmas to those in need
Each Christmas season, local organizations team up to get presents to kids who might not get one otherwise. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.
[Music, sounds of wrapping]
Last week, volunteers worked with spools of wrapping paper sprawled out across a gym in JMU's recreation center, or UREC. It was part of the Warm a Winter Wish program. They were wrapping around 300 Christmas presents to be distributed by local nonprofits. Stephanie Nielsen is the center's assistant director for member services.
STEPHANIE NIELSEN: We have been participating in this event for roughly 26 years, and so we receive gift donations from those in the community. Students participate, JMU community, faculty and staff, and today we have food, music, giveaways, and so we're just wrapping the gifts to give to the three agencies – Mercy House, Brain Injury Connections of Shenandoah Valley, and First Step.
Volunteers included student employee Shay Steinkirchner –
SHEY STEINKIRCHNER: There are a lot of toys. I saw some scooters and bikes, and also some clothes as well. I saw a lot of jackets and gloves and some t-shirts, so it looks like there's a good variety of gifts.
And alumni, like Cate Mundy –
CATE MUNDY: So I live outside of Philadelphia, and I still come back every year because this is just one of my favorite events.
She donated her first bike when she was a freshman working at UREC. She's continued to donate bikes to the program each year – and now that her family and friends know it's her thing, they donate bikes, too. She drove six down from Pennsylvania this year.
MUNDY: You know, a bike was one of my favorite things as a kid, to enjoy and experience, and I remember that Christmas that, you know, I opened up a bike, so to be able to pass that on to another kid is one of my favorite things.
A lot of these gifts made their way to the Mercy House homeless shelter, which houses families in Harrisonburg and helps them get back on their feet. They held a Christmas party on Thursday evening, complete with Santa and Mrs. Clause.
[Christmas party sounds]
SHANNON PORTER: It's the best part of the year, and we love it.
Shannon Porter is the executive director.
PORTER: And we love the fact that these families get to feel normal. These kids know that Santa Claus knows where they're at, and even though they're not in their homes, they're someplace where he can find them, and they just forget about what's going on in their life a little bit.
After getting their gifts and taking pictures with Santa, families moseyed into the next room to open their presents and enjoy a Christmas dinner.
PORTER: It's a blessing to be able to do the work that we do. There's a lot of people in need in this community, and probably more than most people realize. Housing instability is becoming a larger and larger problem in this area. … We have a full shelter tonight, so the need is real … even though someone's – there may be a lot of employment opportunities out there, childcare and transportation are still problems that impact people's ability to be able to get back and forth to work.
One family got more than just a Beyblade arena for Christmas – mom Carla found out during the gathering that she finally landed a place of her own.
[Sound from the party, Carla cries out]
She and her kids, 10-year-old David Alberto and 14-year-old Jose Luis, are originally from Honduras. They've been staying at Mercy House for about three months. Director of Operations Seli Perry helped translate for us.
HAGI: It looks like you're having a lot of emotions about this; do you want to talk about how you're feeling right now?
PERRY: Esta bien emocionada sobre esto –
CARLA: [crying] Sí, claro …
PERRY: [translating] I'm very happy. I'm super excited. My children are going to get to have a home. Not that we were without housing, because Mercy House has made us a part of their family, and has really taken care of us while we've been here. They've got the best job in the world … I don't have family. I don't have any other family, but Mercy House will continue to be my family. I don't have the words to say thank you, because they have all been very attentive to my children and to my family, and making sure that I have been taking care of my health and staying healthy through this time as well.
She said that, for the first time in her kids' lives, they'll get to experience having a stable home.